THE SAGELY CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS

Hong Kong

16 September (Day 52)

Universally for the sake of all living beings,
In inconceivable kalpas he enters the hells.
In this way he never has an attitude of repugnance or retreat,
But courageously advances and forever dedicates merit.

Avatamsaka Sutra, Ten Dedications Chapter

Our flight leaves in the afternoon and touches down at Kaitak Airport at 8 p.m. today happens to be the fourteenth day of the eighth lunar month, a day reserved for “welcoming the moon”, in preparation for the Autumn Moon Festival tomorrow.

A welcoming party of about a hundred people greet us. In addition to the lay people, there are Dharma Master His Chen, Dharma Master Chin Shan, Bhikshuni Ch'eng Ming, plus a host of other Dharma Masters, some of whom had left home under the Abbot in Hong Kong. The commotion and scattered energy at the airport seems to be symbolic of the disarray of the Buddhist community in Hong Kong, as we come to discover.

Tonight we will stay at Miao Fa Suu, at Ching Shan, Blue Field. Our car climbs up the serpentine hills (from which the Ranger of the Nine Dragons – Kowloon – derives its name), towards the New Territories. Many of the delegates catch their first glimpse of Hong Kong’s famous night scenery. The sky is now an enchanting study of pale mauves, greys, and royal blue. The moon hangs like a giant luminous disc, releasing a flood of mercurial silver that bathes the land and sea in a translucent euphoric hush. To our left we see Victoria Harbor with hundreds of liners, fishing boats, and sampans bobbing in the glittering waves. Across Hong Kong Island, rolling hills rise abruptly from the ocean’s edge. The entire waterfront is ablaze with bright red and orange neons, stringing multi-layered necklaces across the dark green ridges. Sublime and profane, opulent and poor: to this unique picture-show I now return, waving hello to the oddly-familiar town in which I spent my youth.

After an hour’s ride we arrive at Miao Fa Ssu (Wonderful Dharma Monastery). Our host, Dharma Master His Ch’en, has just completed a brand new temple and is in process of putting in the finishing touches. We are ushered into the second floor. It turns out to be a huge restaurant complex with plush guest rooms on all four sides, replete with red carpeting and inlaid marble walls. Hotel Royale Buddhist.

It’s been a long haul. Most of us fall asleep around midnight.

17 September (Day 53)

At 4 a.m. we wake for Morning Recitation. Today is the fifteenth of the lunar month, as well as Dharma Master Chin Shan’s sixtieth birthday. About sixty left-home people, along with scores of lay people, circumambulate the Buddhahall for over half an hour while the dense incense smoke forces tears from our eyes. Morning recitation lasts two and a half hours.

During the regular morning meeting our host Dharma Master His Ch’en saunters in. He is a little alarmed to hear that we’ll be moving on today. A repartee then ensues between him and the Abbot: sharp, jabbing wit, multi-layered innuendos from our host who does ninety percent of the talking; smiling, quiet attentiveness from the Abbot. Most of us shut up and watch the movie unreel. Dharma Master His Ch’en’s interest is expansion. He is well-known among local Sanghins as a builder of schools, and is convinced that he should carve out a Buddhist empire with its headquarters based in New York.

“Then I’ll build subsidiary branches in every state of the U.S.A.”

The Abbot says quietly, “Why don’t you just come over and join in our work at City of Ten Thousand Buddhas? Isn’t one center for World Buddhism enough? My interests are not regional. My perspective is Great Function for the Entire Substance. I don’t care to carve out niches for myself in any part of the world. I’m not interested in making a name for myself. My sole concern is Buddhism and propagation of the Proper Dharma.”

Impressions…

We have arrived at Hollywood of the East. Tinsel Town propped up by bamboo stilts; and to that a background of white-washed Western villas, sloping green ranges, checkered sampans against the azure China Sea. A bigger, badder, foxier town would be hard to find. The term “sharks” for local aficionados seems to apply exactly. Behind glamorous facades of huge shopping malls, penthouses, nightclubs, the world’s finest restaurants, discos and entertainment thoroughfares, underneath the layer of rouge and glitter, lurk the ghosts of abject poverty, wantonness, and filth. Hong Kong must be one of the heavens or hells of the desire realm, depending on which end you come from.

Family is a burden, designed to drag you down. Unless you have samadhi, to transcend the skeins of entanglement. Don’t climb on their conditions. Their conditions are defiled. “Every living beings in the Saha is defiled, but because they are your family you are especially tuned into their vibrations. Observe how a defiled kshetra works – good mixed with the bad, bad mixed with the good,” the Abbot gently teaches.

Don’t panic. I watch the karmic web unravel. I watch myself watching myself. My cough worsens; my resolve for Bodhi strengthens. Underneath the harsh jangle and clamor sounds another chord with equal intensity, that of silence: lucid, self-illumined, thus, thus unmoving, while the wild tides rampage in ceaseless ebb and flow.

Lunch at Miao Fa Ssu is a spoof. Bhikshus and Bhikshunis start picking at their food before the meal offering chant is recited, despite repeated requests over the intercom that people should not begin eating before the offering praise. The actual meal seems a cumbersome affair. Dish after dish is announced and brought with theatrical flair, perhaps a little flamboyant for people who are used to eating simple food in silent and thankful contemplation. All the while local Dharma Masters engage in vigorous verbal duelling: hidden swords dipped in vinegar, sharp, flashing exchanges with a hornet’s sting. The Abbot glides through like a spring breeze. The caution to us all: “If you aren’t sure, close your mouth. The locals operate by slightly different standards than we are used to.” Truly unfixed dharma. Exhilarating to watch the Abbot. In every incident, down to the subtlest hint, smile, or nod of the head he is teaching and transforming. No matter how ferocious a storm the eight winds are brewing, they move him not.

Watchful, like a man crossing a winter stream,
Alert, like a man being watched by neighbors on four sides,
Courteous, like a visiting guest,
Yielding, like melting ice,
Simple, like uncarved wood,
Empty, like a deep valley,
Obscure, like muddy water.

Tao Te Ching

If I do not cultivate I’m convinced I’ll die. In these few days of scuttling back and forth, an abject change in the emotional climate has turned me. Even a turn of a few degrees is a noticeable shock. In cultivation do not hesitate or fear. Keep a straight mind that doesn’t dwell anywhere.

Right during lunch as we are struggling through our food, the Abbot is asked to speak. The acoustics are poor and his voice bounces back in emptiness, an echo of the entire affair. He says a few brief words; no one seems very interested. They are either eating, clanging their bowls and chopsticks, or yelling over the mike. Most rambunctious are the bhikshus and bhikshunis who occupy about ten tables in the front end of the dining hall. The Abbot’s speech:

“Dear Good Knowing Advisors, old and young friends, highly virtuous ones, today we’re able to gather together in this new hall. This is due to conditions planted from measureless kalpas, and not at all a chance meeting. Yet, we will only truly meet in the Pure Land of Eternal Still Light, not in this Saha world of the five turbidities. Your enjoyments should not be limited to eating some good food together…”

The words pass through deaf ears. Such vacuous pretensions to ceremony, and inside the hollowness a piercing wail of muddled desire and world-weariness. Buddhism seems to be protocol; the only religion in this colony is the green dollar. For that, people are willing to sell anything and everything – their bodies, families, and souls. By all appearances, except for rare exceptions, the Sanghins that have fled from China seem to be swept up in this lopsided merry-go-around, spinning around in oblivious abandon. Bliss or suffering? It’s all in the Mind.

We bid farewell and drive out after lunch. The Abbot and the delegation of about fifteen people return to Happy Valley to the Buddhist Lecture Hall, a branch of the Sino-American Buddhist Association. As is his usual custom, the Abbot launches directly into some stringent house cleaning as soon as he hits the decks. Signs of decay, sloth, laxness everywhere. He’s been gone long enough so that some of his disciples have become remiss. Most of the time the Abbot’s demeanor is extremely gentle and compliant, but when he manifests awesome anger, even angels fear to tread. As if commanding invisible legions, the Abbot wields his vajra pestle.

The Lecture Hall is small, about 700 square feet, with a tiny private room on either end of the apartment. Every one is cramped. There are about fifteen people staying here. A far cry from the deluxe temples we’ve been dined and pampered at all through this Asian circuit. In the center of the Hall, a jade Buddha from burma and an image of Earth Store Bodhisattva preside over the modest oil lamps and dharma instruments. Here the three monks continue bowing silently in front of the small altar, while most of the laymen find themselves little corners on the rooftop in which to meditate and sleep.

All in all, a rather turbulent change of scene, chastening us within, like fire melting ice.

Due to a lack of space in the Buddhist Lecture Hall, Heng Hsien and I return to my father’s house at night, totally exhausted.

18 September (Day 54)

Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone…
They paved paradise,
And put up a parking lot.

Joni Mitchell

Passage through desire city. Buddhism has a bad name in Hong Kong. Most local people regard it with disdain. Many Sanghins run it like a business: whether reciting Sutras, running Buddhist “amusement parks” and veggie restaurants, or any other Buddhist rites – money comes first. And so it’s well-known that the Abbot has never been popular in these parts. He never conformed to what other Sanghins did. The principles which his disciples in America live by are:

Freezing, we do not climb on conditions,
Starving, we do not scheme,
Dying of poverty, we do not beg.
According with conditions we do not change,
Not changing, we accord with conditions.

A glaring opposite to the general customs in Hong Kong. Here it seems to be mostly a hustle for bucks, suave and glib social maneuverings, and looseness about the precepts. No wonder he is not popular. No wonder he doesn’t mind being called “Old Demon King” or “ghost catcher”.

After lunch we make a pilgrimage to Hsi Le Yuen (Western Bliss Garden). We’ve heard about this place and are all curious to visit the first Way Place that the Abbot built in Hong Kong some twenty-six years ago. Tucked up on a steep mountainside at Sao Chi Huan, it can only be reached by a torturous ascent of a three hundred foot flight of stone steps. The trip would be taxing even for a young person, but the Abbot out of great compassion comes along. About fifteen of us wind our way up a precarious incline on the barren mountain. After about twenty minutes we arrive on a rugged promontory. We face an ocean misted over by purple smoke as the wind hisses like playful dragons in the ridges. One step into a rock alcove and we’ve arrived. Here, as if embraced by Nature’s cupped hands, lies Western Bliss Garden – enclosed by emerald bamboo curtains, cleverly hidden in a cavern, gleaming pearl-like in liquid pools of light.

The building is small, some fifteen by thirty feet, a stucco adobe with a gray tiled roof. The Abbot designed and personally superintended its construction. Now he takes us to the back of the temple. There within an enclosure that resembles a well is the famous rock from which a fresh spring bubbled forth many years ago when he first arrived. Before the Abbot came there was no water on this craggy hillside. Upon his arrival a crack suddenly appeared in the rock from which a cool, refreshing spring simply gushed forth. The water was never exhausted no matter how many people came for Dharma Assemblies. We all gulp down big mouthfuls. Immediately the coolness rinses away the sodden heat of the afternoon. It’s the sweetest water I’ve ever drunk.

We rest in the shade. In the glint of the afternoon sun, pines rustle like a waterfall of silver fishes, while the wind whistles through stone hollows like some lone poignant reed pipe. In the pale, moving light, the trees, the thousands of tiny hovering insects, the sheer rising mist – all become infused in a milky sheen, soft as a memory. The foreground shimmers and dissolves, the noise recedes until there are no more people, no more trees, no more sounds, only the flurry of velvety pastel ripples swimming in a nimbus of stillness.

The sun is fading as we begin our descent slowly down the craggy hillside. Snatches of a well-loved T’ang poem from childhood start humming in my ears.

Few wander to this temple in the wilderness
It lies faraway, separated by lofty clouds and deep waters,
The evening sun still lingers,
While the peal of lonely chimes fill this empty forest.

19 September (Day 55)

A letter arrives this afternoon from Gold Mountain Monastery in which are related two interesting incidents that have just transpired: one concerns Kuo Pao Crawford, a dentist in San Francisco who, with his family, has recently taken refuge with the Abbot. Two weeks ago the family enjoyed a very special visit from the Abbot. Dr. Crawford’s two young children were playing at the house when they suddenly saw the Abbot walk in from the front door, resplendently dressed in red and golden robes. All this time the Abbot is officially in Malaysia with the delegation. The parents are profoundly moved by the episode.

Another incident concerns Kuo Rey and his friends. Kuo Rey is leader of a famous Chinatown gang. The whole group came to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas one day in July, about a couple weeks before we left for Malaysia, on their best behavior and expecting not to be recognized. During that time they had been planning to buy a huge store of ammunition: machine guns, hand grenades, etc., and mapping a bloody shoot-out with a rival Chinatown gang. They were waiting for the right man to show up with the right price. For reasons unknown they decided to come to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas on Kuan Yin Bodhisattva’s enlightenment day, to “case out the joint” perhaps. The front gate was locked. They were about to leave when someone suddenly appeared to let them in. They were ushered into an audience with the Abbot. About twenty tousled-haired youths took refuge with the Triple Jewel on that day. The Abbot rapped them over the head with very distinct instructions, “After you’ve taken refuge with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, you have to repent painfully of all your past offenses, and vigorously turn over a new leaf. Do not make mistakes in cause and effect. If you kill other people’s fathers, your own father will be killed; if you kill other people’s brothers, your own brothers will be killed.”

They returned to San Francisco that evening. Apparently the unexpected and pointed admonition had its effect. Several days later a man appeared with the firearms and the right price – everything they had wanted. But by now the group had changed its mind.

About a week before the letter to us from Gold Mountain was written, Kuo Rey and several of his buddies all had a similar dream. They dreamt that the Abbot came and rubbed them on the crowns of their heads. Now these young men go to Gold Mountain every night to listen to the Sutra lectures. Kuo Rey confides to the bhikshus there that they met the Abbot in the nick of time. Otherwise there certainly would have been a second Golden Dragon bloodbath. “Shih Fu saw right through our every flaw as if we were glass. There was nowhere to hide.”

This conversion has had far-reaching effects. It is not known how many thousands of lives are saved, directly or indirectly, because these young people have decided to abandon their confusion and return to the good. The Chinese community in San Francisco has suffered long and hard in the shadow of thugs, gang-wars, and robberies. If these young people choose to change and redirect their energy to benefit the world, it will be that much better for everyone.

20 September (Day 56)

The buddha said, “Men are bound up by their wives, children, and homes to such an extent that these are worse than a prison. The time comes when one is released from prison, but there is never a moment when you think of leaving your wife and children. Don’t you fear the control that emotion, love, and sex have over you? Although you are in a tiger’s mouth, you are blissfully oblivious in heart. Those who throw themselves in the mud and drown themselves are known as ordinary people. By passing through this door and transcending defiling objects, one becomes an Arhat.”

Sutra of the Forty-Two Sections

Sunset … sitting … listening to the surf inside. My body is seething, blazes of purple, yellow, and green fire. New energy coursing from the coccyx, up the back, around the neck and buzzing on top of my head. The spine feels like a lightening rod. The new heat ignites every cell until each pore is screeching to pour out into Empty Space.

Take a deep breath. Cool it down. Keep still. Subdue that fire. Here is a good chance to do some smelting. Right at this moment turn the dross metal into vajra. Inching along like a tightrope walker.

Enduring what others cannot endure…

I try to concentrate my mind, silently reciting Kuan Yin’s name: Namo Kuan Shih Yin Pusa, … Namo Kuan Shih Yin Pusa … the wild blaze is starting to behave, reducing itself to a little blue flame, warming the tan t’ien.

Bit by bit I feel lifted from the boiling lava. The room takes on a glorious glow. Tiny motes of dust glitter in silver waves as I become immersed in a cooling lake. For a split second there is no self and no world. Only huge relief.

From here to Eternity, one long moment … shorter than a single breath.

Living beings of the Saha world are plagued by a common scourge: desire. “People are not grass or wood; how can they have no feeling!” you may say; yet, if you allow your emotions to take over, you become embroiled in the cruel torrents of love and craving, hopelessly hounding towards the sea of birth and death. Cultivation is that stupendous effort to turn the current around against the normal flow. It means tempering the fiery passions, smelting and refining, transforming dark stupidity into wisdom light, selfish love into all-embracing compassion. We’re all given the same raw material to work with. The zeal that the craftsman brings to his art makes all the difference. Cultivation demands total dedication. On the way some bitter work and inconceivable surprises lie in wait for us.

21 September (Day 57)

In the morning the Abbot, Mrs. Ho Tien-yo, and a few of us take a short walk to nearby Tung Lien Chiao Yuen, Eastern Lotus Enlightenment Garden. This is an old Buddhist girls’ school and temple erected by the late Lady Ho T’ung.

Built in the traditional classical manner, with glazed blue and orange tiles, curving roofs, and graceful pavilions, the monastery is an elegant vision conjured from another century. We step through a carved moon gate into a little garden of elusive charm. In the great hall underneath billowing lanterns, streamers and awnings, Heng Hsien and I bow to the Abbess, Bhikshuni Men Sheng. About fifty bright-faced schoolgirls look on. A cool redolence of incense perfumes the air, wafting amid the vermilion pillars and contoured verandas. The sun streams through delicate filigree and stained glass windows. The wooden floor and painted porticos glisten with a mellow ember glow that comes from age and care. Shakyamuni Buddha and Manjushri Bodhisattvas gleam their subtle, enchanting smells, while wind chimes tinkle and the cool air bathes us in some long, lost dream.

It is finally arranged that the Abbot will lecture here every evening starting from tomorrow night until the time we leave the colony. It’s a huge relief. We’ve been feeling sorry that the Abbot has refused to lecture for the past few days. The rain of Dharma can rejuvenate any withered heart.

Ng Fung Pao and his wife, along with five people who have come with us from Malaysia, leave for Taiwan today. Mrs. Ng waves a tearful goodbye. But we’ll meet again soon. The Buddhist Society in all of Malaysia is in the process of organizing a delegation to attend the Opening Light Ceremony and the International Buddhist Convention at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in November, 1979.

Simmering in the Hong Kong heat it feels like we’re catapulting through Act II, Scene 4. my life is in transition again. Impressions hurl by and explode on the mind-screen, like the unraveling of movie frames, free to play backward and forward instantaneously and all at once.

Hong Kong (the “ Fragrant Harbor”) was a “smelly” fishing village with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants less than a century ago. After the notorious Opium Wars, the crumbling Manchu Dynasty ceded it to the British Empire. The island’s hidden potential was quickly discovered and for the past ninety years has been exploited to the full. At first it was backwater for English Taipans, a den for trading deals and illegal escapades. Then Hong Kong steadily gained importance through its strategic position on the southeast coast of China and became a gateway to the not-so-accessible sleeping giant of Mainland China. Today this island is a nexus for international trade, a throbbing heart organ connecting a complex network of meridians and arteries that flow through this busy part of Asia. Affluent, dynamic, chic, sordid, corrupt, and dangerous. Dumping grounds for the refuse and excess of hedonistic extravagance, a gem in the palms of the lord of Desire. Here in this small metropolis, meals worth a king’s ransom are served everyday. The food that is not eaten is thrown into the gutters, to be scooped up by lean refugee children who live in the resettlement housing estates nearby, or by droves of hungry flies and dogs. Behind the gambling palaces, the floating restaurants, the star-studded nightclub revues boasting “the best from Paris and Tokyo,” separated by a thin, invisible net of depravity and rancor, in the seamy underside of town are the dope dens, the gang crimes, black market, and international espionage.

Citizens are drugged by the three poisons. In the old days it used to be opium. Today the drugs are slicker, but the underlying tactic the same. Updated intoxicants include mahjong, horse races, casinos, live Barbie dolls, electric gadgets, and the entire gamut of luxury items and delicacies from every part of the world. Like pathetic little ants, the people of Hong Kong crank out green cash with their life juices, most of them undone in their youth, zapped at thirty, walking zombies. At a shocking rate young people are involved in trade rings, robberies, prostitution, blackmail, and in deceit – violent outflows from the volcanic blaze of the five skandhas without the cooling aid of Dharma.

It is in places like Hong Kong that the Abbot chooses to do his world. “I don’t go to places where there are already enough people propagating the Dharma.” True to his motto, “The harder the better,” he works in unruffled calm and patience, never complaining no matter how strenuous his job or how impossible the odds. The Bodhisattva saves living beings without the mark of living beings.

Of all living beings’ countries and karma,
Whether defiled or pure,
The Bodhisattva knows that they are level,
Like a dream.  

His mind is not apart from the world,
And yet does not dwell in the world.
It is not outside of the world
That he cultivates all wisdom.

Avatamsaka Sutra, Ten Practices Chapter

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